Archive for the ‘United States’ Category

The Egalitarian Promenade of Washington, D.C.

Monday, March 11th, 2013
Washington D.C. skyline at night

Washington D.C. skyline at night

Washington, D.C. is such an iconic city that it is hard to imagine it not existing. But like all great cities, our nation’s capital was imagined, planned out and then built, and certainly not in a day.

In 1971 Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a Frenchman who fought in the American Revolutionary War and a comrade of George Washington’s, was announced as the master city planner for the future capital. He envisioned a place that married grand European style with American ideals, a city designed for citizens who were were truly equal. In that light, he turned an area full of marshes, hills and working plantations into open public squares, wide avenues and formidable architecture.

Image source: Wikipedia

Image source: Wikipedia

After surveying the land, L’Enfant came up with a very Baroque layout for the city. His plan called for ceremonial spaces and grand radial avenues, while respecting natural layout of the land. Thus, as his design took shape it became a system of diagonal avenues intersecting with and laid on top of a grid system. L’Enfant symbolically placed the Capital Building, the seat of Congress and therefore the people, on a high point of land, a location usually reserved in European city plans for the monarch’s palace. The grid would begin and branch out from where the Capitol Building would be built. 

The U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C.

As L’Enfant biographer Scott Berg explained to Smithsonian Magazine, “The entire city was built around the idea that every citizen was equally important,” Berg says. “The Mall was designed as open to all comers, which would have been unheard of in France. It’s a very sort of egalitarian idea.”

This was L’Enfant’s vision, and a good one at that. However, he did not have popular support for his plans, in large part because his plan required the demolition of a number of high-ranking official’s houses. L’Enfant eventually resigned his post, and at the time of his death in 1825 he had received no compensation, recognition or realization of his efforts. But a century later, the Senate organized a team of architects and planners to resurrect L’Enfant’s original plan and finally bring his concept to life.

Image source: Wikipedia

Image source: Wikipedia

This vision culminated in the National Mall, a site L’Enfant had called a “great public walk.” The National Mall stretches for two miles, from the Potomac River to Capitol Hill, and is lined with shady trees, gardens and the Smithsonian Museums. While the end result, as we know it now, may not have been completed in L’Enfant’s lifetime, it has certainly lived up to his vision as a great congregating area for public events and protests, as well as many a pick-up ultimate Frisbee game.

Planning a trip to D.C.? Check out Smithsonian Journeys’ new Washington, D.C. Family Adventure here.

Rushing Waterfalls and Spectacular Vistas: Yosemite in the Spring

Friday, March 16th, 2012

David Wimpfheimer (Photo courtesy of Susan Colletta)

David Wimpfheimer is a biologist and a professional naturalist with a passion for the natural history of the West and a special interest in birds. During his 25 years as a guide, David has lectured on trips to Death Valley, Baja California, Yosemite National Park, and more. This spring, David will return to Yosemite to lead a Smithsonian group. In his post below, David discusses his plans for this upcoming trip and what makes Yosemite, designated a national park in 1890, so special.

Yosemite. The very word conjures up many vivid images, thoughts and feelings. Huge, thundering waterfalls, an incomparable valley of sheer

Giant Sequoia (Photo courtesy of David Wimpfheimer)

granitic cliffs and domes, groves of giant sequoias, birds, bears and other wildlife.
I have visited Yosemite National Park every year for the last thirty. I never get tired of going there. How could I with so many varied landforms and organisms?

This June, I will be taking another Smithsonian group to Yosemite. Last year, the Sierra experienced one of the greatest accumulations of snow in recorded history. While that made for a great show of waterfalls, deep snow actually prevented us from walking out to some of our destinations. 2012 is just the opposite, a very low year for snow. Don’t worry, the waterfalls will still be spectacular, and we’ll be able to walk to Sentinel Dome. This is a moderately easy mid-elevation walk through open montane forest of fir, pine, and juniper to spectacular views of Yosemite Valley and the Sierra crest to the east.

Waterfall (Photo courtesy of David Wimpfheimer)

With less snow in the mountains all the park’s roads will be open. Glacier Point, towering thousands of feet above the cascading waters of Nevada and Vernal Falls, is a place that never fails to impress me. The views are there, but I enjoy sharing the smaller details; spiky seedpods of a Chinquapin bush, the ethereal song of a Hermit Thrush, or even a Sooty Grouse calling from the bough of a majestic Red Fir. Tioga Pass will be open allowing us access to the dramatic alpine zone. Mono Lake lies just to the east in a spectacular sagebrush basin. This is an awesome place that I hope to show our group.

Yosemite is the kind of place that is really more than just the sum of the words describing it. A photograph of a giant Sequoia can never do justice to its size. That’s why we’ll take a walk through the historic Mariposa Grove. The spirit of John Muir seems to call out from this unique place. Our June visit will be a good time to see the huge white blossoms of azalea here while chickadees, warblers and other birds are in full song.

There is so much to share with participants, but I want you to have your own special experience of Yosemite. It may come on one of our group walks, but you’ll also have the opportunity to just sit by the bank of the Merced River and take in this glacially carved landscape on your own. Like most national parks, there are many choices here. We’ll guide your explorations, but always allow room for more discoveries.

Half Dome (Photo courtesy of David Wimpfheimer)

Photo courtesy of David Wimpfheimer

Photo courtesy of David Wimpfheimer

Photo courtesy of David Wimpfheimer

Photo courtesy of David Wimpfheimer

Peering Up At The Night Sky (And Then Into Deep Space)

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

Stargazers are in for a treat this month as five of the eight planets are visible in the night sky. Of the five, Venus and Jupiter are the brightest and most visible to the naked eye. To spot these planets, simply gaze up at the sky at dusk, as these planets are the first two “stars” to appear after the sun goes down (Jupiter being the higher of the two).

Jupiter’s Moons:

Readers with a backyard telescope, or even ordinary binoculars, should also be able to spot four of Jupiter’s permanent moons, first seen by Galileo Galilei on a clear January night in 1610. Starting closest to Jupiter, these moons are Io, Europa, Ganymed and Callisto (named after the nymph who Zeus placed in the sky as the constellation Ursa Major after jealous Hera turned her into a bear). Depending on the night, one or more of the moons may be hidden from view on the far side of the planet, so consult this handy guide from Sky & Telescope to identify which is which.

Jupiters moons

Jupiter and its four moons taken with a handheld camera in x32 zoom. (Image courtesy of Flickr user treehouse1977.)

Gazing into Deep Space:
Want an even CLOSER look? Try peering at real-time images generated by the Mount Graham International Observatory’s new Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona, the most powerful optical telescope in the world. Until relatively recently, ground-based telescopes had to live with wavefront distortion caused by the Earth’s atmosphere. This distortion (the reason stars appear to twinkle to the human eye) significantly blurred images of distant objects. The Large Binocular Telescope, one of several visited on Smithsonian’s “Astronomy in Arizona” tour, uses a groundbreaking type of adaptive optics technology to produce the clearest images of deep space ever collected – sharper even than those collected by Hubble.


The Large Binocular Telescope atop Mount Graham in southeastern Arizona. Photo by David Steele; courtesy of The Large Binocular Telescope Observatory.)

A central region of the globular cluster M92. The image on the left was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The (clearer) image on the right was take by the LBT in adaptive mode.  This picture is one of the sharpest images of deep space ever recorded. (Image courtesy of the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory.)

Further Reading:
A Complete Guide to Viewing the Planets this Month:

More About The Large Binocular Telescope:

Viewing the Stars with Smithsonian:

The 150th Anniversary of the Civil War

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

This year is the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War, which began at Bull Run in Manassas, Virginia early on the morning of July 21, 1861.

The Smithsonian is honoring the sesquicentennial of the Civil War in numerous ways, some of them listed here:

Our official Civil War 150th web experience is located here and includes several online exhibitions, educational resources, and links to podcasts, events, blogs, and more.

We’ve also honored the occasion with a special Smithsonian Book – The Civil War – A Visual History.

We’re partnering with the Chautauqua Institution to bring you a week of Civil War programming with leading Civil War scholars at the historic campus in western New York State.

On our Journey through Hallowed Ground, follow the Civil War from Charlottesville to Gettysburg with Civil War expert Study Leader A. Wilson Greene, Executive Director of the National Museum of the Civil War Solider.

Join us next June for an exclusive tour of Civil War sites here in the Washington, DC, area on War Comes to Washington – 1862, where you’ll also discover the unique role the Smithsonian played during the War.

On a lighter note, vote for your favorite display of Civil War facial hair and learn more about the historic contestants in our contest.

Q&A On Luxury Small Ship Cruising

Monday, July 25th, 2011

Vasos Papagapitos, President of Travel Dynamics, one of our esteemed travel partners specializing in small ship educational enrichment cruises, talks with Smithsonian Journeys staff member MaryBeth Mullen about the distinctive small ships, Corinthian II and Callisto.

The distinctive small ship Callisto

The distinctive small ship Callisto

Q. How is small ship cruising aboard the Corinthian II and Callisto different from other cruises?

A. Small ship cruising differs from traveling aboard large ships in many ways, some more obvious than others.  One of the great advantages of small ship cruising is the access to smaller ports and harbors that are off limits to larger ships. Then there is the ease and convenience of disembarking only 100 or fewer guests for shore excursions, as compared to several hundred.  Aboard our small ships, flexibility prevails, so if there is something special and unexpected that we wish to take advance of ashore, we can always return to the ship a bit late and know that the dining room and ship’s staff will be happy to accommodate our schedule. And one of the true delights of small ship cruising is the relaxed and convivial atmosphere aboard, which fosters easy conversation with fellow travelers and new friendships.

Q. With nearly 20 international cruises planned aboard the Corinthian II and the Callisto for 2012, what are some of the most popular destinations?

A. In spite of the political upheaval in certain pockets of the Mediterranean Sea over the past year, the Mediterranean remains our most popular and resilient destination.  Nothing can compare to the beauty and significance of its sites—whether dating from Greco-Roman times, or other periods. Contributing to the popularity of our Mediterranean voyages is the fact that we visit them through a the perspective of a particular theme, including a voyage that follows the route of Homer’s Odyssey, or a voyage that explores the Secret Art Treasures of Italy, and a voyage that examines the expansion of the Venetian Empire, sailing from Venice to Cyprus.

Q. The Corinthian II is an all-suite 114 guest ship. Can you describe the accommodations and amenities for first-time cruisers.  

A. The accommodations aboard Corinthian II are very spacious, with a sleeping area and a sitting area, as well as marble-appointed bathroom. A number of suites have balconies. There is ample storage space, and the wonderful cabin stewardesses anticipate every need. Travelers consider their suites a true home away from home.

Q. What is the dining experience like on these smaller ships? 

A. Guests enjoy continental cuisine, with an emphasis on fresh ingredients from the local marketplaces. We have an “open seating” tradition on board so that guests can dine with different travelers each evening, which makes for stimulating conversation.  If guests prefer a quiet table for two, or to dine with friends, a table can be reserved through the maître.  Lunch is often served in the dining room and on deck, so that guests can select their preferred venue. In addition to breakfast in the dining room, coffee and pastries are served on deck for early risers.

Q. In addition to the Corinthian II, you also offer programs aboard a much smaller vessel, the private yacht Callisto traveling to West Africa, Turkey and the Greek Isles. What is like traveling aboard such an intimate ship?

A. Traveling aboard Callisto is a true joy. Guests feel that they are on their own private yacht, and the ever-accommodating service personnel welcome them like family on board. We take full advantage of the unique properties of Callisto by visiting regions in greater depth and calling at ports that are unknown to larger vessels.

Q. Will there be Smithsonian study leaders and tour managers to handle logistics aboard each cruise?

A. Each trip is staffed by outstanding study leaders that bring an important educational dimension to the travel experience. Not only are their lecturers stimulating, but they are always accessible for one-on-one conversation.  And our tour staff is well known for its warmth, professionalism, and expertise.

Q. On average, how many ports are visited throughout a cruise? Essentially, how active are these trips? 

A. We generally visit a different port each day, so that on a nine night cruise, we might visit a total of nine or ten different ports during the cruise. In many ports we spend a full day to allow for a rich sightseeing program, which is always included in the price of the trip.  Knowing that travelers enjoy relaxed time at sea, there are generally several days where we spend a half a day in port and the balance of the day at sea. The trips are active; however, travelers can decide whether they wish to participate in all of the organized activities and sightseeing, or strike out on their own from time to time.

Q. Where are you traveling this year? Do you have a favorite destination?

A. This year I look forward to traveling on our program to West Africa aboard Callisto. It is such an unusual and intriguing itinerary, and I am especially interested in seeing the islands of the Bijagos Archipelago, located off of the coast of Guinea-Bissau, known for their remarkable wildlife and the traditions of the Bijagos peoples. If I had to name a favorite destination—which is not easy to do—it would be the Aegean Islands, my homeland.

Click here for cruises aboard Corinthian II and here for cruises aboard Callisto.